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Guantanamo's detainees struggle to trust even those helping them

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Lawyers for the men imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base here face a lot of obstacles trying to build their cases — vague and unsubstantiated charges, secret evidence, clients racked by long incarcerations.

But among the biggest hurdles, defense lawyers say, is getting their own clients to talk to them.

"The Guantanamo detainees were held incommunicado for years and constantly lied to by government interrogators who said they were there to help," explains New York defense attorney Joshua Colangelo-Bryan. "So, when we lawyers said we really were there to help, they didn't believe us."

Lawyers have used many tactics to help their clients get over their skepticism. Colangelo-Bryan learned lines from a client's favorite childhood movie, Jumanji. Former Navy attorney Charles Swift — who compares taking a Guantanamo case to "climbing Mount Everest" — studied chess and Arabic. Left-handed lawyer Nancy Hollander learned to eat with her right hand to avoid offending cultural sensitivities.

Then, there is Denver attorney Mari Newman, who went halfway around the world to find a way to bring her client and his family together. This is her story.

Newman's client is a 26-year-old Yemeni who goes by the single name Musaab. According to declassified reports, he was fingered as a suspected terrorist in 2002 after Pakistani police came to his apartment in Karachi. He volunteered that he had gone to Afghanistan to teach in the summer of 2001. The Taliban forced him into a training camp, he said. He left three weeks later and made his way to Pakistan.

Police turned him over to U.S. custody, a practice that netted the Pakistani government millions of dollars in bounty payoffs. Musaab believed Pakistan got $5,000 for him.

He was put in "the dark prison" in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Musaab says guards beat him, hung him by his left arm from the ceiling of his cell for days, and wired electrodes to his testicles. Such torture methods at the prison are documented in U.S. government reports.

According to military documents, Musaab said he recognized the Taliban and Al-Qaida members in the photos his interrogators showed him.

"When it comes to torture, Musaab doesn't have much of a backbone. He readily admits he went along with everything to get it to stop, " said Darold Killmer, Mari Newman's law partner.

Musaab was taken to Guantanamo in 2002. His lawyers say he spent months in a solitary confinement cell without a window. U.S. Department of Justice reports say interrogators threatened and hit detainees during this time. Other interrogators claimed they were lawyers and could help the detainees.

Like hundreds of released detainees who have told similar stories, Musaab learned to trust no one because there was no way to verify who anyone was.

Newman, 39, and Killmer, 48, took on Musaab's case pro bono in 2007. They didn't expect much. Pat Bronte, a Chicago lawyer who had worked on the case, said Musaab had initially refused to have a lawyer.

• • •

Newman and Killmer flew to Yemen and talked to government officials about Yemenis held at Guantanamo. Their three-person law firm paid all the expenses.

They also wanted to meet Musaab's family, so they hired a driver and a translator to take them through the mountains to the coastal town where Musaab grew up. Fifty hours after leaving Colorado, they arrived at the family's boxy, concrete house. Newman had covered herself from head to toe in a heavy, black abaya, despite 100-degree temperatures.

When the family invited them in, Killmer stayed downstairs with the men and boys to watch soccer on TV while Newman went upstairs with the women and girls.

Away from the men, Musaab's mother hugged Newman and broke into sobs.

"Her deep pain over her son so upset me that we stood there for minutes both sobbing and holding onto each other," Newman says.

The women in Musaab's family served eggplant and flatbread and strung jasmine flowers into a necklace for Killmer. The men found a delicacy at a restaurant called "an American hamburger" and proudly presented it to the lawyers.

After eating, the women returned upstairs. They took off their shoes and abayas and lounged about in summer dresses on a green rug. They drank warm Fanta orange soda while Musaab's nieces sat on Newman's lap and sang a song about love as grand as the moon and stars.

His sisters called her "sister." His mother called her "my daughter."

But because Musaab was allowed only minimal contact with his family, he had no way of knowing about the warm relationship that had developed.

"The problem," Newman says, "was how to translate their trust in us to Musaab."

Musaab's older sister pulled Newman's hand and led her into an upstairs bedroom. She opened an old wooden wardrobe. Inside were two or three dresses on hangers. She pulled out a billowy floor-length dress with a pattern of dark and light swirls of gray and blue.

Through the translator, she explained it was the dress she had always worn when Musaab was growing up.

"Take it," Newman remembers her saying.

• • •

Months later, Musaab met Newman and Killmer in the sparse concrete room where lawyers meet their clients.

As the lawyers remember it, he was sitting in a plastic chair with his legs shackled to a bolt in the floor. Newman wore the black abaya over her clothes; Killmer wore a golf shirt and khakis.

Musaab sat at the table in his off-white prison uniform, giving them brief responses.

Newman's movement was quick and slight. She pulled back the front of the black abaya near her ankles, exposing a small patch of the dress she was wearing. It was long and billowy with a pattern of dark and light swirls of gray and blue.

Musaab looked down. He let out a guttural sound from somewhere beyond words.

"My sister," he whispered.

"Yes, your sister's dress," said Newman.

• • •

Musaab asked them to be his lawyers. Newman always wears the dress when they return, at his request. They bring an ice chest full of treats: roasted eggplant, stuffed grape leaves, flatbread and sesame cakes.

Though he has been at Guantanamo for almost seven years, Musaab has never been charged with a crime. But he hasn't been cleared for release either. His lawyers are trying to get his case into U.S. court, saying they are "completely comfortable that he was not a terrorist and never will be" and this will come out at trial.

In the meantime Musaab waits, not knowing whether he'll be released, transferred to a prison in another country or put on trial. All he knows is that his attorneys will return, bringing with them a small part of home.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at or (727) 893-8068.

Guantanamo's detainees struggle to trust even those helping them 07/25/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:15pm]
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